Raggedy Dandies

The fashion-forward minds behind Rock Star Rags, St. Louis' invite-only vintage clothing warehouse

If looks could kill, the softball team yukking it up at the table directly in front of the stage at Lemmons would be dead by now.

There should be a law against this, these weeknight warriors who take it upon themselves to single-handedly ruin a set of experimental synth pop by Brooklyn, New York-based singer-songwriter Tim Garrigan, a local boy made good sharing a homecoming bill with Ben Hanna of Grandpa's Ghost.

Garrigan has drawn a respectable and respectful crowd. But these fuckers at the front table are drinking and shouting while they scarf down Lemmons' cake-thick pizza, concocted from the Black Thorn Pub's maroon-sauced recipe. Their obnoxious patter is so grating that audience member Eric Abert, bassist for Collinsville rock band Ring, Cicada, and his dining companions are contemplating telling the softballers to hit mute on the remote.

Each swig of liquid courage brings the would-be confrontation closer to reality. But there's one formidable roadblock: a seven-foot, mustachioed brute with "Moose" emblazoned across his T-shirt, who looks like he's been ripped off a roll of Brawny.

Moose, who is drinking beer straight from the pitcher, sports a conspicuous piece of duct tape on the rear of his shorts, the ones he wears while rounding the bases after hitting 500-foot home runs through the windows of four-family flats. But nobody tells Moose he needs to find a good seamstress, and nobody is going to tell Moose and his teammates to shut the hell up.

So it goes, and so Abert pours himself another beer and sinks his teeth into a third and final slice of Black Thorn pie, careful not to soil the vintage three-quarter-sleeve blue cotton football shirt he's wearing. Stenciled across the chest are the words "Parker College of Chiropractic" -- the hallmark of a Dallas institution that trains its students to treat the spinal columns of folks moronic enough to quarrel with the likes of Moose.

Abert didn't graduate from Parker College of Chiropractic, isn't currently enrolled there, is not even aware it's located in Dallas and, for good measure, knows not a single breathing human who has ever laid eyes on the Texas school's campus. But he loves the shirt because it's one of a kind, the type of garment that inspires wide-eyed "where-in-the hell-did-you-score-that" looks from the hipster patrons of Lemmons.

Parker College of Chiropractic shirts are not likely to end up arranged by size on the racks of the Gap anytime soon. But what Abert and his fellow rock stars wear is likely to influence those who design the Gap's next fall line. And thanks to a secretive north St. Louis outfit called Rock Star Rags, what Abert, Nadine, the Electric, LoFreq, the Spiders, the Phonocaptors and a handful of other upwardly mobile St. Louis-area acts are likely to be wearing is high-quality vintage clothing.

If you haven't heard of Rock Star Rags, that's because Rock Star Rags doesn't want you to hear about it. Housed in an unassuming warehouse on St. Louis Avenue a few blocks east of Crown Candy Kitchen, the store opens its doors for "public sales" maybe ten weekends each year. "Public," mind you, is a smidge misleading: One must be invited to these sales or initiate contact with Rock Star's domestic account manager, Deb Johnson, to be included on exclusive e-mail invites.

Johnson and her Rock Star Rags cohorts score the occasional garment at weekend yard sales, but the lion's share of the company's clothing arrives on its Ninth Street loading dock via an affiliate sourcing operation in Houston, Texas, that gleans precious old coats, trousers and assorted other duds from textile-recycling warehouses in the Southwest. Also prominent in this complex commercial fray are a cloak-and-dagger network of "pickers" who, legend has it, are apt to strip the slacks clean off a freshly decomposing corpse if the dead legs sport the sort of plaid pattern that will fetch dozens of dollars on eBay or at a trendy Chicago boutique.

Why the hushed, high-stakes approach? Because good Parker College of Chiropractic shirts are hard to come by.

"There's a limited supply out there," confirms Viv Vassar of Hey Viv Vintage Clothing, a New York City-based online retailer that specializes in plus-size vintage. "I've built up a network of suppliers. You could roast me over a fire and I wouldn't tell you who they are."

Rock Star Rags does business in 49 states (sorry, Alaska). Even at that, 75 percent of the store's commerce is tied to the Japanese market, where Americana is all the rage. The Japanese clients remain as incognito as humanly possible. Ditto Rock Star's absentee owner, San Diego resident Mark Goldenhersh, the eccentric founder of the 34-year-old company once known as General Vintage.

You'd think the place was Fort Knox or something.

In many ways, it is. If Moose were for hire, he'd make an ideal security guard, and perhaps take care of the duct-tape issue on his rear end in the process.

Deb Johnson, Luis Martinez and Barb Young are swapping war stories in the Rock Star Rags break room, which features a generous collection of vintage Playboy centerfolds taped to the walls.

A half-Mexican brunette who lives near Bevo Mill, Johnson holds degrees in apparel and theatrical design (with a minor in costume history) from the University of Missouri and handles all of the company's domestic accounts. "Barb is the heart, I'm the face and Luis is the comic relief," Johnson sums up the partners' respective functions.

Martinez is a Carondelet resident and military veteran who lived in Fort Wayne, Indiana, for several years, earning his keep doing warehouse maintenance and other heavy labor. Young -- a folksy blond Arnold resident whose feathered-bangs-bombshell appearance is reminiscent of the front row at a Mötley Crüe show circa 1985 -- has also walked a blue-collar career path, with stints as a receptionist and an auto-parts store manager. Each is married, each has three kids. What started as just another gig for them at Rock Star has steadily earned their appreciation and become a trade of passion.

"Anybody can go into Dillard's and get FUBU," says Martinez, a Puerto Rican bear of a man with a menacing goatee rendered less so by his class-clown demeanor. "But you can't find a 60-year-old jacket."

Rock Star's physical space is a seemingly never-ending, split-level labyrinth of cement rooms and clothes-filled plywood crates bearing black felt-pen drawings of space robots, the handiwork of ex-employee and Spiders' band member Jaxon Noon. With its industrial-size freight elevator, poor lighting and hard-to-find rear stairwell, the warehouse would make a fine venue for games of laser tag, paintball or hide-and-seek.

The building's reception and office areas are equally stark, albeit far more orderly. Litter cleanup at the intersection of Ninth Street and St. Louis Avenue must be a low priority for the city's maintenance department: Broken glass and potholes are part of the landscape. The area is an industrial no man's land for the most part, the sort of neighborhood that doubtless teemed with waterside industry a century ago but has subsided with the waning of Mississippi River commerce.

Having gained entry to Rock Star's offices by ringing the bell and getting buzzed in, one is met by the output of the vintage stereo Martinez picked up during a recent Operation Brightside cleanup. There's a barebones bathroom to the left of a "lounge" area that features wood-paneled walls, a card table and a steel sink. (This last sees plenty of use from greasy paws and industrial-strength soap after a hard day's work.)

Young's southeast-corner office is windowless and denlike. Immediately to the west sits Johnson, surrounded by Post-It notes, a giant Led Zeppelin banner and assorted rock paraphernalia. Martinez's office, nearest to the sink, is the tiniest. But it also contains perhaps the most precious décor: a wall-length Afghan rug depicting the illustrated Kamasutra.

"It's got all the positions," Martinez says proudly.

Equally extensive are the descriptions inscribed on the barrels at Rock Star Rags' invite-only public sale: '70s Jumpsuits, '80s Cha-Cha Dresses, Euro P.J.'s, Star Trek Tops, Mod Psychedelic Blouses, Solid Poly Disco Shirts, Velvet Pants, Plaid Golf Pants, '60s Mod Psychedelic Go-Go Dresses, Letterman Jackets, Jogging Suit Bottoms, Cheerleader Skirts, Red Windbreakers, Men's Vintage 1940s Ties, Nurses' Uniforms, '70s Denim Jackets, Lee-Wrangler Jean Shorts To-Be, Euro Ribtops, '70s Maxi Skirts and Disco Denim Skirts. To name but a few.

The time is eleven o'clock in the a.m. on a Friday in mid-April, and while most city types are at the office pressing the flesh in their starched shirts, a few dozen tattooed zombies fresh from a hard day's night taking in a local live act until last call are picking through Rock Star Rags' polyester-laden barrels.

Most (if not all) of the members of this motley crew are acquaintances of Johnson who have ties to the St. Louis music scene. The ones who aren't musicians consider it their duty to sack up and shimmy to the Hi-Pointe, Lemmons, the Rocket Bar or the Creepy Crawl three or four nights a week. It's part of their ethic: dingy nightclub as satellite office, Stag as evening coffee.

Johnson roams the sales floor with a white foam mask covering her nose and mouth, her allergies in full bloom from the pollen of spring. Assisting her with the T-shirt barrels is her pal Sara Brion, a ringer for Pixies and Breeders guitarist Kim Deal whose KSHE sing-along to Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child O' Mine" is pitch-perfect.

From the middle of the bin, Brion uncovers a tiny maroon shirt bearing the words "Omega Love" on the chest, which is quickly snatched up by a Hefty bag-bearing young woman who migrates to the warehouse's first-floor scale for checkout.

Johnson places the sack onto a gray industrial scale near the baler. Total haul: eighteen garments, including three windbreakers, one gold fall jacket, one baseball jersey, one Bruce Lee karate shirt, one Hawaiian shirt, one scarf, two solid-color long-sleeve disco shirts, one long-sleeve '60s floral-print shirt, two pairs of old-school sweatpants, one long-sleeve Western shirt (with snap buttons) and four tit-tight T-shirts. Total weight: eight pounds. Cost: $1 a pound.

"You've pretty much got the whole world in there," says Jeff Lopinot, the co-owner of Verve Hair Salon on South Grand Boulevard. Lopinot schedules twice-monthly trips to Rock Star for his stylists, on the salon's dime. "I look at fashion magazines or walk around Nordstrom's and I see everything I can get at Rock Star Rags. Any high-dollar joint, you can get the same stuff at a vintage clothing store."

That's no accident, says Linda Welters, a professor of textiles, fashion merchandising and design at the University of Rhode Island.

"The Manhattan Vintage Clothing Show -- a lot of designers go there to knock off ideas for their new designs," says Welters. "Celebrity culture's getting in on it, too. At the Academy Awards, you see Renée Zellweger wearing vintage Valentino. Certainly, nobody else is going to appear in that."

The vintage trade seems perennially to bask in a pop-culture boom. To loyalists, it's all about the struggle for supreme individuality in personal style -- which translates to ultra-competitiveness and secrecy in sourcing.

"There's an underground feel to it because it starts most of the trends and is really forward," says Susan Schofield, proprietor of Louisville's Cherry Bomb, a Rock Star Rags client and significant other of indie-rock darling Will Oldham. "We're set back 35 feet from the street and people will walk in and say, 'Welcome to Fantasy Island, it's taken us three years to find you.' They want to feel like they've found something special. So you can imagine how I feel about Deb.

"If the other two competing vintage stores in Louisville knew about Deb, I'd be bummed out," Schofield adds. "She's mine."

The clients from Chicago are late for their 11 a.m. "pick-through." Which is fine by Johnson, whose schedule is flexible by design.

"I have a rock & roll lifestyle to live up to," she says, speculating that the Windy City pair must have strayed the previous night to the Hi-Pointe from their lodgings at the Cheshire Inn.

Johnson is the only one of Rock Star's three-person nucleus to have purposefully chosen vintage clothing as a career, one that more or less started when she was sixteen on the streets of south St. Louis. Johnson was an independent "picker," gleaning thrift-store racks for the coolest, most obscure duds and selling them to vintage boutiques or friends at a profit. When she moved to Columbia for college and found herself in need of beer money, she continued her picking and salesmanship in earnest.

"Back then thrift stores were full of cool stuff," she reminisces.

When the Chicago clients show up only half an hour late, Johnson's theory is proven wrong: Turns out the pair stayed at a dive motor inn in Collinsville and binged on VH1 all night.

"We watched a lot of I Love the 80s," says Nancy Becker, the proprietor of Una Mae's Freak Boutique in the Wicker Park neighborhood.

Becker, clad in Joan Jett concert T and dark-blue denim jacket, is accompanied by Joel Alford and his truck. Alford's beanpole physique sports multiple tattoos, bed-head hair and, around the neck, a navy-blue kerchief. By night he plays in a band called Hyperviper.

He and Becker proceed to pick vigorously through Rock Star's cardboard T-shirt barrels. The decision-making process appears to consist of Alford displaying Ts he likes for Becker's approval. Shirts that feature bizarre Biblical sayings or pep squads at rural junior high schools are decidedly en vogue. The same cannot be said for plus-size garments.

"Ideally, we like 'em small," Becker says.

Of St. Louis' used-clothing stores, only the thrift/vintage hybrid Rag-O-Rama comes anywhere close to self-sufficiency (thanks to its Delmar Boulevard location, strategically placed near cash-desperate, fashion-fickle Washington University students). The rest scour estate sales and charity thrift-store racks but mainly stock their inventory with garments purchased from Rock Star Rags, and from larger outfits like Rock Star's neighbor to the north, General Waste, which gets its clothing by the ton from the excess inventories of Goodwill, the Salvation Army, etc. Thus, Rock Star often plays the middleman in this multilevel industry, serving as a conduit between big textile recyclers like General Waste and boutiques like Una Mae's and Cherry Bomb.

And then, of course, there's the Japanese department-store market, which accounts for a whopping 75 percent of Rock Star Rags' revenue and requires the full attention of both Martinez and Young.

"Japan has, for the last twenty years, bought American icon items, starting with Levi's," says Jana Hawley, an assistant professor of textile recycling at the University of Missouri. "Russians used to be into the black market for Levi's. I know people who used to take a suitcase of Levi's to Russia and end up paying for their trip."

Russian denim smuggling waned with communism's fall, but the stealth machinations of the era live on in the mysterious world of vintage-garment acquisition. According to Johnson, Rock Star's Pacific Rim clients and their American go-betweens answer only to the code names "Dragon" and "Chico."

Sarah Wheelock, a Yale alum and Rock Star client who owns and operates the Funky Monkey vintage store in New Orleans, recalls a 2001 New York Times Magazine article that painted an especially deranged portrait of the industry's pickers.

"They made us sound psychologically twisted," Wheelock says of the February 25, 2001, piece by Steve Garbarino. "They talked a lot about the personality type -- tending to be addicted to drugs and alcohol, hipster oriented, out to screw each other. The reason it gets cloak-and-dagger is the sourcing. People are always trying to outdo each other. Everything's one of a kind, so it's more competitive in that respect."

In addition, the secondhand clothing industry from Goodwill on down has been tarnished by claims that the big rag recyclers ship excess inventory to Third World merchants, undercutting the sub-Saharan textile-manufacturing industry.

"It's killed textile manufacturing in Africa, which is how a lot of Third World countries jump start their economies," Wheelock acknowledges.

Shantha Bloemen, a documentary filmmaker who lives in Africa, produced T-Shirt Travels for PBS's "Independent Lens" series. While Bloemen finds the overabundance of recycled American clothing to be generally detrimental to Third World economies, she's at a bit of a loss as to how to rectify the problem.

"There is no doubt that people in the Third World now depend on secondhand clothes, not just because they are the most readily available but because they are often better quality than what can be produced locally," Bloemen comments via e-mail. "The traders are dependent upon it, so you could not just ban it. But there need to be some protections and ways for African-based industry to develop that is not simply for import but for local consumption.

"I do believe we should think a little bit more honestly about our notions of charity," the filmmaker continues. "Often we are so ready to pat ourselves on the back for being generous, without really asking some more deeply rooted questions. The act of giving should be selfless, but often in the competitive world of giving, it becomes about making the giver feel good, while not looking at the long-term impact on the intended beneficiary (i.e., the Sudanese kid who ends up with the used Philadelphia 76ers T-shirt on his back). It is part of trying to be a little bit more honest about our motives, and indeed about its impact."

Of course, as Johnson points out, trade is free and recycling is far from illegal.

"It's free enterprise," Johnson says, noting that Rock Star does not deal regularly with Third World clients. "Third World nations were wanting Western clothing, so why not sell them the stuff we're throwing away or donating?"

On a Thursday afternoon at Parodi's, a workaday corner bar off North Broadway at Ninth and Tyler, Martinez is joined at a window table by Johnson, Young, two massive plates of chicken wings and several icy cold pitchers of Busch. So they've knocked off at two in the afternoon. So fucking what?

"There's no way we could go to another job and not get fired the first day," Young observes.

Business is on the upswing at Rock Star, but nowhere near the salad days of the '90s. For almost that entire decade, Rock Star Rags employed up to three dozen people at a time. Then the bottom of the Japanese stock market fell out, and the layoffs came en masse.

"We've been 'closing' since '98," jokes Martinez.

Back then the warehouse's kaleidoscope roster of sorters and seamstresses featured stoner rock kids working side by side with devout African-American women of advanced age.

"There was never a dull moment," Young recollects. "You had kids, old black church ladies. The church ladies would smell the kids smoking pot."

Drugs are hardly considered a taboo topic around Rock Star. In fact, Johnson recalls a bizarre client meeting she attended in the company of owner Mark Goldenhersh, on a rare visit to check up on his minions: "We're at the [Schlafly] Tap Room. In the middle of lunch, Mark starts talking about driving around the Sahara goofed up on acid. [The clients] were totally eating it up. He's like a big, eccentric kid. That's one of the reasons why we don't hate him. He's funny. He's an old hippie."

Still, adds Johnson, old hippies aren't necessarily cut out for astute bookkeeping, as she is in the midst of dealing with the aftermath of an undisclosed cash-flow crisis wrought by Goldenhersh's laissez-faire management style.

"Mark runs this business like a bookie," she confides. "We have our surprises."

The final survivor of the stock-crash layoffs is a hound-eyed black fellow named Marlon Brandon, who strolls into Parodi's sporting a blue Food For Less polo shirt from a supermarket shift just concluded. Brandon lives in north city and is Rock Star's part-time baler. Upon his arrival, Martinez bounds to his feet and escorts Brandon to the bar, where he is furnished with a fresh frozen beer mug and a sidecar of Hennessy.

"Those two were split at birth," Johnson quips.

Johnson's stepbrother, Scott Hermes, plays drums for the Phonocaptors, which compels her to tell Brandon about her brother's upcoming show at the Hi-Pointe. Mildly interested, Brandon says he'll think about it, laughing in the next breath about the last time he was at the Hi-Pointe: It was a staff party. Everyone got hammered. Ah, memories -- or the lack thereof.

The Rock Stars' musical tastes are all over the map. Brandon likes old R&B and soul and prefers to tune the stereo to Magic 104.9 while he bales bundles. Young likes country and classic arena rock, with Van Halen and Bob Seger among her favorites. Martinez is fond of salsa, hip-hop and straight-ahead rock. Johnson digs the Rolling Stones, the Who, KISS and Queens of the Stone Age, but her true heroes are the local yokels. As tenured a live-music devotee as exists in this town, she counts LoFreq, Shame Club, the Spiders, Whoppers Taste Good and Ring, Cicada among her favorite Arch-area acts and dutifully attends three or four local shows a week.

In the flush '90s, she provided musicians with jobs at the Rock Star warehouse -- alumni include Hermes, Noon, the Spiders' Zach Chasnoff, Pave the Rocket's Mike Belfield, Sicbay's Dave Erb and Greg Silsby of Cumberland Gap. And she continues to offer her wardrobe services to local rockers in need of a stylishly earthy look for a photo shoot or tour.

"Adam [Reichmann] and Steve [Rauner] met her hanging out in Cicero's basement," says Nadine manager Jeff Jarrett, describing the band's first encounter with Johnson several years ago. "She invited me and the band into the warehouse. We'd just go in with a trash bag and get as many clothes as we could. It was just a bunch of our friends, a lot of people from Undertow [Records].

"Deb has so much cool stuff in her warehouse," Jarrett goes on. "She's always been very helpful in terms of suggesting what to wear onstage. Deb's the kind of person, if you see her at the Rocket Bar or Hi-Pointe, she always knows everybody who's there. You're kind of drawn to her. That sort of personality really helps her get a huge number of people into the sale and warehouse."

Back at Parodi's bar, where four gentlemen are seated, a paper sign reads, "If you came in here to bitch, you've just wasted 98% of your time. I suggest you use the other 2% to find the door." Above it hangs a hockey stick covered with dangling women's underwear.

More pitchers are summoned -- they've lost count -- and Johnson tells of her experience outfitting Lucinda Williams for a local gig. Johnson asked the alt-country goddess why designers weren't clamoring to shower her with free duds.

She mimics Williams' deadpan reply: "'Honey, I'm not Jewel. '"

But then, if she were, Johnson probably wouldn't buzz her in. ¡Viva la rock!

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